US President Donald Trump, facing scrutiny for hush money payments to a porn star and a former Playboy model, pleaded with evangelical leaders for political help during closed-door remarks on Monday, warning of dire consequences to their congregations should Republicans lose in November's midterm elections.
"This November 6 election is very much a referendum on not only me, it's a referendum on your religion, it's a referendum on free speech and the First Amendment. It's a referendum on so much," Trump told the assemblage of pastors and other Christian leaders gathered in the State Dining Room, according to a recording from people in the room.
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"It's not a question of like or dislike, it's a question that they will overturn everything that we've done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence. When you look at Antifa -- these are violent people," Trump said, describing what would happen should his voters fail to cast ballots. "You have tremendous power. You were saying, in this room, you have people who preach to almost 200 million people. Depending on which Sunday we're talking about."
Antifa -- a loose collection of anti-fascist groups who regularly stage counter-protests against white supremacists and neo-Nazis -- have emerged as an effective bogeyman for segments of the US right.
In a video released last year by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the pro-gun group used footage from street protests and occasional Antifa violence to paint all on the US left as seeking to "bully and terrorize the law-abiding."
Trump previously appeared to link Antifa to violence at a Charlottesville demonstration last year in which a white supremacist killed a left-wing counter protester and injured 19 others. The President later said there was "blame on both sides."
'Get people to support us'
Evangelicals have provided a solid block of support for Trump, even amid the scandals involving alleged sexual affairs.
After news of those purported encounters emerged, his standing among white evangelicals did not slip. But inviting the leaders to the White House only days after the President was newly implicated by his longtime personal lawyer's guilty plea underscored the degree to which Trump is trying to keep his supporters on his side.
"You have to hopefully get out and get people to support us," Trump said. "If you don't, that will be the beginning of ending everything that you've gotten."
Trump will need to maintain that support if he hopes to help Republicans stay in power on Capitol Hill or win re-election himself in 2020. On Monday, he touted the steps he's taken to promote religious liberty, such as loosening restrictions on political speech from the pulpit, which previously could jeopardize religious institutions' tax-exempt status.
The remarks from an attendee's recording offered a more dire view of the upcoming vote than Trump has projected in public. He often trumpets an upcoming "red wave" of Republican victories, downplaying suggestions that Democrats are poised to exploit his divisiveness and retake the House or Senate.
Trump didn't mention a "red wave" on Monday, instead acknowledging that midterms often present new presidents with a turnout challenge.
"The polls might be good, but a lot of them say they are going to vote in 2020, but they're not going to vote if I'm not on a ballot," he said. "I think we're doing well, I think we're popular, but there's a real question as to whether people are going to vote if I'm not on the ballot. And I'm not on the ballot."
That's a problem Trump said the evangelical leaders could help solve by galvanizing their congregations and followers to vote.
"I just ask you to go out and make sure all of your people vote. Because if they don't -- it's November 6 -- if they don't vote, we're going to have a miserable two years and we're going to have, frankly, a very hard period of time," he said.
"You're one election away from losing everything that you've gotten," he added. "Little thing: Merry Christmas, right? You couldn't say 'Merry Christmas.' "
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